on October 2nd, 2006

We employ an eclectic mixture of experienced engineers, graduate engineers and engineering students both on permanent staff and on contract at IDC Technologies. We run  many courses every day throughout the world; so I am privileged to have the opportunity to talk to the experienced old salts and the young enthusiastic engineering graduates itching to conquer the world. 

But what infuriates me is the redundant content these young engineering students are being taught at college or university. They are still learning how to program an obsolete microchip, how to program in languages no longer used and arcane mathematical concepts which will never be used in industry, among other things.

We are all aware of the throw-away line about 90% of the material taught at engineering school being absolutely irrelevant to our jobs. So why do we continue to teach this stuff ?  I clearly remember learning lots of interesting theory at university engineering school – from esoteric mathematics (remember Cauchy Integrals ?), to calculating the damping of the needle movement of a galvanometer. I must confess that I did sneakingly enjoy the mental gymnastics that went with the learning, but sadly, most of it was irrelevant to my later work. We are told repeatedly that the knowledge gained is not the main issue; the reason for it all is to teach us to think. Hmmmm…

The other challenge that we face is that the material we do learn at engineering school, which is useful in industry, has a very short shelf life. I remember learning BASIC programming. I was quite taken by it and applied it quite successfully, writing some interesting mining programs which generated real results. But today of course, BASIC has largely been replaced by C++ and C# programming languages.

The result of this is that we have ended up with engineering graduates who have spent at least 4 years at college and have virtually no skills which can be immediately applied in the workplace. Essentially they have to be (re)trained at enormous cost and frustration to the employer. I would hazard a guess that for most of them, if they had been plucked straight out of high school having graduated and given a proper engineering cadetship at the firm; they would be in considerably better ‘nick’ to function as engineers after only 2 years.

The other challenge probably is a fault of the schooling system rather than the universities and colleges is that we have many engineers who are virtually illiterate – they can’t write, read properly or indeed do a decent presentation to a group of their colleagues. As far as I am concerned this is one of the most important skills for an engineer. Technical skills wane over time but sound communication skills are difficult to pick up beyond high school.

A couple of years ago we successfully presented numerous courses at an undergraduate engineering level. Over the 4 years we received tremendous reviews and provided a great practical learning experience for the students. We brought real equipment into the engineering school and had real industry practitioners teaching real engineering. But eventually the professor of engineering had to terminate our program on instrumentation and industrial data communications – real nuts and bolts stuff. He sadly confided that this was due to a problem with university funding (they had too many lecturers). They replaced us with a course on instrumentation engineering with virtually no instruments presented by a lecturer who had never worked with instruments in industry. I notice with grim interest that a year or so after this, this professor left the university as well.

I don’t appreciate people who rant about issues (as I appear to be doing here) without proferring a constructive solution. So here is my take on the situation in terms of solutions:
1. We need to go to the high schools and promote what good engineering education is about. According to ASEE Prism (2002) Massachusetts fired the shot heard ‘round the engineering world in 2001 when it became the first state in the USA  to require engineering instruction in every grade of its public schools. It was the first time that a new discipline had been introduced into the state curriculum in 100 years.

2. We need to significantly upgrade the pay and conditions of university and college instructors so that we attract the finest but with significant industry experience. The pay and conditions have to be comparable to private industry. Academics should be actively encouraged to supplement their pay by working in industry to keep their hands in and to relieve the stress on the public purse.

Don’t get me wrong, however, there are some outstanding lecturers and college teachers. They are absolutely dedicated and driven to do the best for their students and put in enormous hours with tiny rewards. They often do have superb industry experience and credibility and they turn out outstanding graduates. Despite being regularly kicked in the guts in terms of financial cut backs, I am constantly amazed by the passion and enthusiasm shown by these instructors.

The challenge we face is that there are a large number of academics who have no industry experience and are not interested or able to teach current engineering practice. They have never worked in industry and most never will. So what are they teaching our young people ?  The community colleges have similar challenges. Perhaps here it is at its worst as the underpayment of these employees is greatest.

3. We need to measure and market or  advertise to the world, the good university and college engineering departments – those that are teaching outstanding engineering with instructors who have real passion and commitment. This recognition should result in  even greater rewards. We need to ensure that the colleges and universities with  poor records have  assistance to raise their levels.

4. We need to drive the engineering education process to be more entrepeneurial and business oriented and to focus on the real jobs out there. Teach our young people to be business oriented and to communicate in outstanding ways. They need to be taught to be flexible in what they expect from industry when they graduate. As Mark Davis (AFR Sept.2006) remarks – “manufacturers need to focus on high valued added services such as research, design, product development or marketing and distribution in this country while producing the goods themselves at factories in Asia”. The days of an engineering graduate starting work for a good old manufacturing firm and staying put just ain’t gonna happen. It may be manufacturing today; but it may change to design and product development tomorrow.

5. Experienced engineers from industry need to volunteer to present courses at these colleges and universities on real engineering topics. There is a desperate need to provide  real engineering practice to students at university.

6. We need to grab engineering students and offer them vacation employment in meaningful and relevant occupations. Even when they are studying at college they should be apprenticed to a firm doing part time work and enhancing their pay and accumulating real experience. Students will learn early on whether or not they have chosen the right career. Futhermore the good students will come back and work for you and be outstanding company assets.

7. We need to teach our engineering students to think and to search effectively for knowledge. They need to treat knowledge as another commodity; to locate it (via Google, for example), test it for quality and truth, apply it, and then store it so that it is easily accessible to them and their colleagues.

8. Finally, we need to teach students that learning is a life long pursuit. Skills gained today only have a short life of a few years, they then need to look for the next wave and jump onto this.

Just my ha’penny worth today !

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